Here's What You Need To Remember: In the past, Taiwan could leverage technological superiority to enhance its primary defense over China. Today, that is less of an option.
Over the past decade, virtually every aspect of China’s military arsenal has grown more lethal. This improvement has necessarily affected the military balance with Taiwan. With tensions between China and the United States growing, Taiwan’s position has become even more precarious. President Xi Jinping has recently signaled a more hardline attitude on reunification with Taiwan, suggesting that it’s past time to re-evaluate the military balance between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China.
Here are five of the most menacing systems that China could use in the event of war with Taiwan.
The recently acquired Su-35 is the premier air superiority aircraft in the PLAAF’s arsenal. China has acquired two dozen of the multi-role fighters in the last two years, which offer the PLAAF a mature platform for undertaking long-range air operations against Taiwan, or any other foe. In addition to its formidable air-to-air profile, the Su-35 also has sophisticated strike capabilities, and an effective range that would allow it to threaten targets across the theater.
The PLAAF has many other aircraft that can perform strike and air superiority missions over Taiwan, and eventually, the J-20 may supersede the Su-35 as the most important formidable aircraft in China’s arsenal. For now, however, the Su-35 presents a major problem for Taiwan’s air force to solve.
In 2018 China began to accept delivery of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system. One of the most lethal SAM systems in the world, the S-400 has a maximum range of up to 400km, which extends over Taiwan. As some analysts have noted, this does not represent a “shut down” capability with respect to Taiwan’s use of the air, as the effectiveness of the S-400 at long range is limited. However, it does deeply complicate Taiwan military use of the air, and has the potential to completely disrupt any commercial use of Taiwanese airspace. It also helps provide a degree of overlapping air cover with PLAN assets attempting to interdict air and sea transit from Taiwan. This could prevent the transit of military equipment and other critical supplies to the island in times of war. The defeat of the S-400 might well require large-scale strikes onto the mainland, which the Taiwanese military would struggle to undertake, especially if subjected to heavy missile and airstrikes.
China’s vast arsenal of short and medium-range ballistic missiles, employed with precision, can inflict catastrophic damage on Taiwan’s military infrastructure. This includes especially Taiwan’s airbases and ports, which would likely come under immediate attack from Chinese missiles. The most lethal missile in China’s arsenal, from the point of view of Taiwan, is a problem the DF-16, which has a range of 1,000km and can deliver a 1500kg warhead with a circular error probability of 10 meters. The DF-16 also has terminal maneuver capabilities, making it difficult for ABM systems to intercept.
Taiwan has indigenous and foreign anti-ballistic missile systems, but how they will hold up against repeated salvos is an unanswerable question. Taiwan’s air defense network will also have to manage cruise missile and manned aircraft sorties. Taiwan can further harden airbases and can disperse infrastructure, but Beijing probably has enough missiles to make this only a short-term answer.
Type 075 LHD
The Type 075 offers the PLAN its first large flat deck amphibious warship. Big amphibs, pioneered by the United States during the Cold War, enables sophisticated amphibious assaults against defended targets under medium threat conditions. At 40,000 tons, the Type 075 will be similar in size to the largest American amphibs, but will not share the air defense and strike mission that those ships have undertaken (China does not yet possess a VSTOL jet fighter).
Although the first ship has yet to see service, reports suggest that China is building three Type 075s. The exact configuration of the class remains uncertain, but analysis suggests the ability to carry more than two dozen attack and transport helicopters. The U.S. Wasp class, of similar dimensions, can carry upwards of 1,600 troops and a variety of landing craft. This is sufficient to employ a form of vertical envelopment (aerial assault designed to compromise a defensive position) against Taiwanese defenders. These helicopters also mean that it can defend itself from submarine threats. In the future, China might try to acquire more lethal, long-range aircraft to populate the decks of these ships.
Type 071 LPD
In the mid-2000s, the PLAN decided to radically increase its amphibious assault capabilities through the purchase of a class of amphibious transport docks. Of roughly the same size as the San Antonio class LPDs of the U.S. Navy, the Type 071 can carry eight hundred troops, four helicopters, and a variety of small amphibious assault vehicles. Although the ships have only minimal defensive capability (plus a 76mm gun that could conceivably be used in an emergency gunnery support context), they can make 25 knots, and offer the PLAN a capability that it has never enjoyed throughout its 70-year history. In combination with the Type 075 LHDs, and with the offensive capabilities needed to suppress Taiwanese defenses, the Type 071s pose a formidable threat to Taiwan’s beachheads. As of January 2019, the PLAN possesses six LPDs, with another two on the way.
For a very long time, Taiwan could leverage technological superiority to enhance its primary defense over China; the vast distance between Formosa and the mainland. Today, China has developed the means to neutralize many, if not most, of Taiwan’s defensive advantages. It is also in the process of developing a naval expeditionary force that can deliver a substantial number of troops and vehicles to Taiwan’s shores. Unless something about the equation changes, China’s military advantage over the RoC will only grow.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a Visiting Professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed here are his personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, the Army War College, or any other department or agency of the U.S. government.
This article first appeared in 2019 and is being reprinted due to reader interest.